The Passion of the Christ

February, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Mel Gibson

Starring:James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Mattia Sbragia, and Rosalinda Celentano

The Passion Of The Christ

The Passion isn't a film that can be reviewed by a Christian in any conventional sense; the producer/director's shrewd marketing has seen to that. With the accuracy of a stealth bomber, he's managed to position this film beyond artistic grounds as a litmus test for those who share his religiously fundamentalist viewpoint of Christianity and it's central figure, Jesus of Nazareth. That much was to be anticipated; what audiences won't expect-or appreciate-is being bludgeoned by it. Here's a film with such a lack of imagination that it mistakes graphic violence for profound dramatic insight; the results are as unsatisfying and unpleasant as any I've ever encountered in a movie theater.

But Mel Gibson's depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Christ does succeed in one sense, however unintended--it gives viewers a revealing insight into the theological worldview of 19th century ultra-montane Roman Catholicism in all its fervid glory; latently anti-Semitic, marbled with Mariology and permeated by a belief that the sins of mankind could have only been expiated by the grisliest of deaths of the Divine-in-human-form. 

Gibson insists that his film adheres strictly to the story of Christ's crucifixion as related in the four Gospels, but from its first moments-- in the forbiddingly shrouded Garden of Gethsemane-- the director's vision quickly departs from the texts he supposedly relied on. Gibson provides an androgynous, cloaked Satan to taunt Jesus, who responds to this confrontation by crushing the head of a snake slithering toward him--an early signal that subtlety isn't going to be one of the director's fortes. What follows--arrest, interrogation, flogging, sentencing, execution--is so familiar it needs no recounting; but its presentation becomes a grinding exercise in numbingly explicit violence, devoid of proper context or explanation and interspersed with flashbacks that present a handsome but rather colorless Jewish carpenter/ preacher devoid of the charisma which might explain the threat he posed to the authorities responsible for his subsequent execution. Jim Caviezel, whose penetrating eyes and soft-spoken vulnerability so perfectly suited his sympathetic portrait of an innocent American soldier in The Thin Red Line provides a Christ whose sweetness is easier to grasp than his strength, creating a central character that, in strictly dramatic terms, is far less compelling than his screen persona requires. Gibson and Caviezel give us a Jesus who's innocent without being interesting, a near perfect recreation of the pious holy card images so prevalent in the Catholic Church during the first half of the 20th century, before the liberating work of Pope John 23rd and the Second Vatican Council.

 This commitment to an historically outmoded version of Catholic Christianity is no where more evident than in the director's depiction of Mary, the mother of Jesus; Gibson's Madonna emerges directly from the vision of Pope Pius XII, who attempted to elevate her, in the Catholicism of his papal era, to the role of "Co-Mediatrix of Grace", a theological assertion that both she and her son jointly function as the source through which God's love becomes available to a sinful mankind. Gibson makes her part in Christ's final hours far more extensive than that found in scripture; she mops up his blood after his initial scourging, (with cloth given her by Pilate's conscience-stricken wife) insists that the apostle John guide her along the route of crucifixion for a better look at her suffering son and at one point drops to her knees beside the fallen Christ on the way to Golgotha, offering her own death in lieu of or in addition to his as though she both understood and accepted his role as Savior even more clearly than he did. 

Gibson's sanitized Christ first endures the manipulations of Caiphas and his Temple cohorts before being subjected, by a vacillating Pontius Pilate, to the bloodlust of Roman soldiers so gleefully sadistic they quickly descend to the level of caricature--giggling as Christ's blood squirts onto their hands and faces, fighting each other for the privilege of inflicting the next round of scourging, which seems primarily designed to provide an opportunity of showing how vividly human flesh can be flayed on camera. (In doing so, Gibson extends the boundaries of cinematic gore well beyond those already established by directors like Sam Peckinpaugh and Quentin Tarantino--anyone who now complains about the level of gratuitous violence in American films will have to contend with the legacy Gibson has created here.) 

This heavy theological breathing and dehumanizing savagery is accompanied by a dirge-like score and the camera's tendency to linger on the expressions of actors in supporting roles, all designed to convey profundity but generating instead a weary embarrassment at the film's simplistic brutality. Gibson doesn't miss an opportunity to over-compensate; when Christ writes in the dirt with his fingers, the soundtrack amplifies the sound so much you'd think he's excavating; as Judas despairs at his complicity in the apprehension of Jesus, the fallen apostle is hounded by street urchins who morph into grotesque, demoniac pigmies; when Jesus is nailed to the cross, we not only see the spikes protruding from the wood on the opposite side of the beams, but Christ's blood dripping from their rough tips. When his side is pierced at the final moment of agony, water doesn't flow from the wound, it spurts all over the assaulting soldier's face…and on and on and on…. 

Is the view of Jews in Passion likely to trigger a new round of anti-Semitism? As at least one display at a church in Denver has already proved, it certainly has that potential, but probably only for those bent in that direction to begin with. The movie isn't any more prejudiced than its literary sources, but that will come as small comfort to those who will inevitably suffer from its traditional/conventional finger-pointing. 

Gibson beings this film with a saying from Isaiah's depiction of the suffering servant, and ends it with a brief glimpse of the risen Christ about to leave his tomb and re-enter the world; what comes in between badly confuses the distinction between the properly sympathetic and the merely appalling. That the film would be controversial is no surprise; that it would prove so resoundingly dispiriting provides only bitter disappointment. There is no enlightenment offered here, no opportunity to encounter a historically significant religious personality, certainly no chance of experiencing the true humanity of a towering figure of spiritual devotion. Here is only fear, brutality and a view of the world that is dark almost beyond description. If you must see it, do so only as a penance for your sins. 


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